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Protesters, Police Clash Over Mladic Arrest

A protestor holds a picture of Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect Ratko  Mladic as she attends a demonstration in front of Serbian Parliament on  May 29, 2011 in Belgrade.
Andrej Isakovic
Getty Images
A protestor holds a picture of Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic as she attends a demonstration in front of Serbian Parliament on May 29, 2011 in Belgrade.

Ultranationalist protestors clashed with police in Belgrade Sunday over the arrest of former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic.

Mladic was captured last week after nearly 16 years as a fugitive. His family and lawyer say he is too sick to stand trial but Serbian authorities are determined to extradite him to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague to be tried for the execution of thousands at Srebrenica during the Bosnian war.

Ultranationalists gathered outside parliament waving posters of Ratko Mladic, their national hero. Many protestors were teenagers and they went wild for Mladic's son Darko.

Taking his turn at the microphone on top a large platform, the son defended the father.

"Ratko Mladic was not fighting against other nations, other religions," he said. "Ratko Mladic was fighting for the freedom of his nation".

The rally ended in clashes with the police, but at some 7,000 people, turnout was small by local standards.

Nevertheless, most Serbs have not welcomed Mladic's arrest.

Pollster Srdjan Bogosavljevic says many citizens believe it was carried out under international pressure.

"Only small percentage said 'finally he's arrested, I'm happy that something like that has happened,'" he said. "Mostly people have some feeling that it is kind of injustice, approximately three-quarters of the people" feel that way.

When nationalists were in power, the fugitive Mladic was said to have enjoyed official protection, until a pro-western government came into office in 2008.

Serbia's Deputy war crimes prosecutor Bruno Vekaric says investigators gradually cut off Mladic's financial lifeline and support network. He possessed only $800 when captured.

Extradition to The Hague, Vekaric says, is a matter of days.

"We want express our sorrow for the victims, this is our contribution to justice,"Vekaric says. "We do not want the world to remember us for our war commanders, but as the country of tennis star Novak Djokovic."

Vekaric says physically, Mladic is a far cry from the strutting, hard-drinking military chief. But the arrogant personality seems intact.

"I saw an old, tired man," he says, "moving slowly but he was very aggressive, accusing me of being CIA agent, plotting against Serbs."

A panel of doctors says Mladic's ailments are not so serious and he's fit to stand trial.

This contrasts with the description given by his defense lawyer, Milos Saljic, who says it's a miracle Mladic is alive after two heart attacks and three strokes.

Saljic describes Mladic's conversation as rambling: "At times defiant – he says he'll put on his uniform and walk all the way to The Hague and call Bill and Hillary Clinton to the witness stand."

"At times nostalgic", Saljic adds, Mladic "wants to visit the grave of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. Mostly, Mladic is obsessed with death, and graves."

Graves have always been a Mladic obsession. In his territorial conquest, he would often say where a Serb is buried that's Serbian land. The 8,000 men and boys massacred at Srebrenica were dumped in mass graves.

His detailed war diaries were another obsession. Some 3,500 pages and audio recordings discovered a year ago in Belgrade were handed over to the tribunal.

Analyst Dejan Anastasievic says this trove of documents shows the degree of command and control Mladic exercised over his troops.

"So he will be his own chief prosecution witness," he says. "It will be extremely difficult for him to prove in light of these documents that he did not have command and control over his forces."

Anastasievic says the evidence in the diaries should ensure that the Mladic trial – contrary to others at The Hague tribunal– will provide a swift and unambiguous verdict.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.